Mar 18, 2024 - News

Private California colleges could face legacy admissions penalty

Photo of a walkway on the Stanford campus next to the Hoover Clock Tower

The Stanford University campus last fall. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Private colleges and universities in California could be penalized for continuing use of legacy admissions under a bill in the state Legislature.

Why it matters: The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to strike down race-conscious admissions led to renewed scrutiny of preferential treatment for applicants connected to alums or donors — commonly known as legacy admissions.

  • The decades-old practice, which was first used to maintain white Protestant student populations, means that elite colleges are more than twice as likely to admit a student from a high-income family than a student from a low- or -middle-income family even when test scores are comparable, per a 2023 study by Harvard economists.

Driving the news: The bill, spearheaded by Assembly member Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), would bar private colleges and universities in California from receiving state funding through the Cal Grant program if they give preferential treatment to applicants related to a donor or alum.

  • The legislation would not ban colleges from admitting these students but aims to ensure their status doesn't unfairly give them a leg up, Ting says.
  • Its sponsors include the Campaign for College Opportunity and Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California.

Catch up quick: Cal Grant offers eligible students financial aid that doesn't need to be paid back. More than 360 schools are eligible for the program, compared with nine that are ineligible. USC alone received more than $26 million from Cal Grant in the 2021-2022 school year, the Los Angeles Times reports.

  • The state's public colleges have said they don't use preferential admissions.

What they're saying: "Legacy admissions is really just significant preferential treatment for the richest Americans in this country," Ting tells Axios.

  • Colleges that perpetuate it are clearly working with "their fundraising divisions to ensure that those who are really supporting the university most have access," he adds.

Behind the scenes: Data reported to the state shows that at Stanford, USC and Santa Clara University, up to 14% admitted for fall 2022 had ties to alumni or donors.

  • That percentage is almost as high as the percentage of Latino students in their most recent freshman class — and around two times higher than the percentage of African Americans.

Yes, but: A recent Brookings analysis indicated that ending legacy admissions would likely not have a substantial effect on diversity.

  • The bill also banks on colleges prioritizing Cal Grant funding over potential gains from admitting legacy students.

Context: Ting introduced a version of the bill in 2019 following the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, which implicated dozens of wealthy parents in allegedly bribing coaches and paying for forged test scores to get their children into elite colleges.

  • At the time, it faced pushback from the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, which warned that the ban could lead to fallout among smaller institutions that rely on alumni and donors for fundraising.
  • The bill was later amended to focus on reporting requirements for private colleges that use preferential treatment.
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